March 2, 2016

GLANZEL | Cornell Needs to Conserve

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American higher education is facing an ever-growing plague of exploding tuition costs.  Currently, the average tuition rate for private schools stands at an eye-popping $32,405 –– and the number keeps growing. As each year passes, more and more students contribute to the ballooning student debt bubble (which currently totals $1.2 trillion). And considering the modern job market all but demands at least a bachelor’s degree, America’s student loan crisis is set to grow even further. Now, more than ever, it is crucial to look into how the nation’s colleges and universities can effectively respond to this growing crisis. To examine where changes can be made, I suggest that we look at the micro-level — specifically, we need to look at how changes can be made at a single university. And what better place to look than Cornell?

This university is one of the most expensive colleges in America, where students are charged a jaw-dropping $50,000 per year in tuition (and another $15,000 per year in housing, books and food). Furthermore, for much of the past year, Cornellians have faced endless problems with the university’s administration. The combination of the new $350 health fee, yearly three to four percent tuition hikes (hikes that are more than twice the rate of inflation), and endless nickel and diming (I’m looking at you gym, printing and parking fees), has left many Cornellians feeling as if they are drowning in a vast sea of university expenses.

Among the most vulnerable of Cornellians are those from the middle class.  Middle class students are trapped in a dangerous “no man’s land” of paying for Cornell: their parents cannot simply hand them the money to pay for their expenses while financial aid isn’t nearly enough to adequately cover costs.  And so, it is these students who are forced to take out tens of thousands of dollars in student loans to cover their expenses.  In my case, I currently sit on a mountain of debt totaling $55,000 –– and I’m only a sophomore.

If Cornell, and the American system of higher education in general, is serious about dealing with the issue of student costs, then cost cutting must be at the center of the discussion. Throughout the past two decades, Cornell and other universities have undergone a period of excessive waste and spending. If we truly want to fight student debt, we must fight spending first.

An obvious first step is for the university to cut back on the number of buildings it constructs each year. Cornell just finished construction on Klarman Hall, is currently building additions to Gannett, Stocking Hall and Kimball Hall, and is building a brand new campus on Roosevelt Island (costing an estimated $2 billion). Certainly, each of these constructions are not coming at the expense of tuition dollars, as private donations and funds from the University’s endowment are being used to cover the costs. But there is a larger point to be made from these buildings.  Each new construction demands heating, air-conditioning, plumbing, water, internet, electricity, cleaning supplies and janitors. And guess what? While you may not be paying for the buildings to be built, you are definitely paying for their upkeep.  So the more buildings Cornell constructs, the more you have to pay for water, heat, electricity, and so on.

A less obvious and more controversial step is to take a hard look at the number of the University’s employees. Currently, the number of non-academic employees is more than three times the number of faculty. The University employs over 6,000 non-academic staff members –– all of which have full-time salaries, pensions and benefits that are paid for by tuition dollars. Of these 6,000 plus employees, only 1,090 hold positions as janitors or service workers. Cornell’s mass army of administrators, clerical and professional staff, however, stands at more than 4,500. According to several statistics, the vast abundance of these non-academic employees has done little to help the university. For example, over the past 15 years the number of administrative staff in the department charged with increasing campus diversity has steadily increased.  Yet the University has not seen a major increase in the number of students and faculty members of color over the same period of time. So, what is the use in hiring these new employees?

Though many are frustrated with Cornell for a variety of reasons, I believe the great betrayal of the University’s students lies with the administration’s inability to consider the damning effects of exploding tuition. The lack of concern for the financial health of the University’s students is not only economically reckless, but morally reprehensible. Not only are students saddled with burdensome high interest loans that will forever follow them, but the university is also contributing to the ever-growing student debt bubble that threatens the economic well-being of this nation. So, if Cornell and the nation’s system of higher education want to help combat the growing problem of university finance, they better learn to live within their means.

Michael Glanzel is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at mg786@cornell.edu. Cornell Shrugged appears alternate Thursdays this semester.